Modi’s method of reaching out to Silicon Valley marks a sharp difference with the approach of Chinese President Xi Jinping
San Francisco: It was a good-old fashioned California style love-in on Saturday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the best and brightest of the technology world set a new bar for the relationship between India and Silicon Valley, offering up the promise of new investment and innovation in the digital sphere – and the lure of a less tense partnership than what China and the US have to offer each other.
The first day of Modi’s Silicon Valley tour — which included discussions with the CEOs of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Tesla — ended with a dinner aimed at promoting the Digital India initiative, that saw the technology industry and the Prime Minister rain compliments on one another.
“You are an amazing ambassador for your country… and Silicon Valley will be there for you,” Cisco CEO John Chambers said, during a panel discussion just before the dinner. “By being here… you send a message to the world on what’s possible. You need to have a visionary leader. I believe you will change the world and change India.”
Adobe chief Shantanu Narayen, Microsoft head Satya Nadella and Google CEO Sundar Pichai on the other hand, struck closer to home, churning out anecdotes that largely pointed out how rapidly India had changed over the last few years and how technology and Silicon Valley could accelerate that change.
“We all know that the digital economy has potential to uplift all of society. When I left India 30 years ago, however, it was not like how it is now. Our careers were limited in India. By contrast, in Silicon Valley there were many opportunities. Today, the links between Silicon Valley and India are expanded,” said Narayen.
Modi’s visit to the cradle and birthplace of the information-technology revolution marks the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Silicon Valley in over 30 years. The discussions that Modi had with industry leaders themselves, however, according to observers and officials, focused more heavily on opportunities rather than the challenges involved or substantive issues of implementation.
The only clear, tangible result of the day was announced by semiconductor company Qualcomm, whose CEO declared to thunderous applause that it was setting up a $150 million fund that would invest in the Indian innovation ecosystem and domestic start-ups. Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs also took a leaf out of the Modi government’s playbook by announcing during the panel that it would look to spearhead a ‘Design in India’ movement.
The one thing that perhaps wasn’t discussed was an issue that had made headlines recently, when a group of US academics published a scathing critique of the lack of privacy and digital rights protection in the Digital India initiative. Others have noted that the US itself has paid scant attention to the privacy rights of other nations, with the Edward Snowden revelations highlighting US data snooping activities against countries around the world, including allies and partners like Germany, Brazil and India. Though the Prime Minister’s speech made a passing reference towards assigning “importance to data privacy and security”, Ambassador Arun Singh and Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup pointed out in a press briefing later that issues such as the NSA surveillance episode did not come up during the meetings.
“The thrust of the discussion was on opportunities and not challenges specifically. In the meetings that I attended there were no discussions related to NSA surveillance,” said Singh.
Nevertheless, Modi’s relationship and method of reaching out to Silicon Valley marks a sharp difference with the approach of Chinese President Xi Jinping who, as Financial Times recently noted, put off engaging with the concerns of various Silicon Valley CEOs by not conducting an open forum.
Open forums and discussions appear to be the modus operandi of Modi, who is due to visit Facebook tomorrow and submit himself to an open town-hall discussion – something he has not down in India yet. His admiration of the technology industry is clear. As he put it in his speech here on Saturday, “It’s a great pleasure to be here in California. It is one of the last places in the world to see the sun set. But, it is here that new ideas see the first light of the day.”
The strength of this relationship, however, will undoubtedly be tested as both parties move towards discussing the practical challenges posed by the Digital India initiative.